Reminisce buying antiques in Shanghai

Fancy having an old piece of furniture in your living room? How about an old circular dial telephone from the 1930s? Many of us have the impression that China only produces cheap goods for export. But did you know that the late 19th century Shanghai was one of the largest metropolis in the world?

DongTai Market1
Today this street is no more

Granted the history wasn’t that palatable to some, the city with its concessions to the “foreign colonial powers” gave it a distinct character that cannot be found even in other ‘concession’ cities.

DongTai Market2
Another piece of heritage gone

For within the old Shanghai barely 100 years ago lived a mélange of nationalities, seeking their fortunes in the Chinese market. During those days, the Shanghainese people were considered one of the most fashionable. Many of the “newest” or advanced products of that era were available or hoarded. Outside of Japan, those were indeed the good old days of Shanghai. Heard of the art deco wave? Well that came through this grand dame of a city too.

Today many of these items of that era are considered antiques or collectibles as a whole new generation of collectors emerge.

Thus, Shanghai could be one of the places in China where you can potentially find real antique collectibles from the 19th century or in the least the pre 1950s. While you cannot find many places in Shanghai to purchase real antiques, you stand a chance at “Dong Tai” road (东台路), just minutes’ walk from Frasers’ Residences off Huai Hai (淮海路) Road.

DongTai Market3
Are they art dealers or just dealers?

It was fortuitous that Mel stays in that area most of the time when on business.

However this story is not an introduction to the antique market. Simply because the entire area has already been demolished since February of 2015. To make way for redevelopment you see, as much of the entire Luwan (卢湾) area had endured since the late 1990s. In fact, it has been a miracle that this part of town “survived” that long unscathed by the development that took place at breakneck speed.

You might recall our piece on living in China for a full four years and witnessing all that demolition around the places we lived.

DongTai Market6
So much to see and touch

You see, this was the hot summer of 2011. Suan was clearly not interested and busy with friends. Mindful of the impending closure of the market, Mel was intent on surveying it one last time before it was gone for good. Little was he to know that the market would remain for another 3 years!

While the front side of the lanes hawk all manner of knock offs or replicas, one only need to look behind the lane stalls to the shops behind them to see some of the real stuff. Don’t worry about being a foreigner, for when it comes to bargaining and striking a deal nationalities do not matter in the eyes of the entrepreneurial Shanghainese merchant.

DongTai Market5
It overflows with stuff

From art deco lamps to beautiful vases, you will find all manner of tempting wares to consider. You’d need a significant budget though if you wish to acquire a real antique. With rarity comes value and the dealers there know it. The real deal behind the little stalls can also be tricky to get to. For indeed, while you can browse in some of the little corners shopkeepers store their wares, you still might not strike an easy bargain. Note: many of these antique dealers were closed on Sundays. You see, they also practiced a work-life ‘balance’…

DongTai Market4
Fakes out front!

Amidst some of the “junk”, Mel found some well-priced old currency notes from the pre cultural revolution era. He also found old dial-face telephones (he bought one for RMB480) from the 1930s. Clean it up a little and it looks very dignified. And the wires look like they can still be hooked up to the modern phone cable too. Might want to think about doing that! Today that piece occupies a reserved space in the display cabinet as a testament of the existence of this market.

DongTai Market8
People live here too!

The silverware in some of the shops are genuine (Mel saw and checked the hallmarks) but they cost slightly more than what we could find in the US. And of course there still stands the risk of replicas even for the trained eye. So in case you are wondering to buy, we think it is value for money elsewhere. By the way if you are in the know, Chinese export silver of the pre 1900s are hot items. But they are notoriously hard to distinguish from continental pieces, simply because they were produced for the European market!

If you are adventurous, you can get one of the dealers to refurbish an old leather suitcase from the 1920s. There was an old gentleman busy working on one as Mel walked through one of the many alley shops. He told Mel that his week is always full because the customer seem to keep turning up!

Really old junk makeover

DongTai Market7
Is this a junkyard or what?

The picture Mel took on a Saturday morning showed the place in a mess. By the following week, the whole lot has been restored and re-organized neatly. There were opportunities to acquire some stuff when the shop owner was in a flux with the redecorating, but Mel skipped that chance with much regret… old adage to strike while the iron is hot is never wrong heh?

Yes, today this market is no more. So these photos of the collectibles that can be found in these tiny alleys are in themselves “vintage”. Because while the vendors are said to have moved, the true spirit of real antique collecting and retail may not have followed.

This article was penned over a weekend in August of 2011 and appeared in our newsletter for Q3-2013

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